The Myth of Missile Defense as a Deterrent
Plus, many experts agree that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it wouldn't use them in a suicidal first strike. A detailed National Defense University studyReassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran . Institute for National Strategic Studies: Washington, D.C., August 2005 (104p). [ More (9 quotes) ] concluded that Tehran desires nuclear weapons mainly because it feels strategically isolated and that "possession of such weapons would give the regime legitimacy, respectability, and protection." Basically, Iran wants a nuclear capability for deterrence purposes--just like every other nuclear-armed nation. The Polish foreign minister has even admitted that Warsaw is involved with U.S. missile defense plans in Europe to improve diplomatic ties with Washington, not out of any fear of Iranian nuclear attack.
But if Tehran does obtain nuclear weapons, surrounding it with missile defenses, no matter how effective, will never eliminate the threat that a single missile could penetrate the defense system. Thus, the United States can never neutralize the deterrent value of any possible future Iranian nuclear ballistic missiles with any incarnation of missile defense. A nuclear-armed Iran would have to be treated identically by Washington whether or not missile defenses were in play.
The strategic uselessness of missile defenses aimed at intercepting nuclear-tipped missiles is clear (as I have argued before). This is a conceptual problem, not merely a technical one. The reason is simple: There is always a reasonable probability that one or more nuclear missiles will penetrate even the best missile defense system. Since a single nuclear missile hit would cause unacceptable damage to the United States, a missile defense system shouldn't change U.S. strategic calculations with respect to its enemies. Washington should treat North Korea, Iran, and other adversaries the same before and after setting up missile defense systems. Recently, Schelling publicly stated that missile defense will be of dubious value in addressing the possible future threats from Iran.
Exaggerating the abilities of missile defense is downright dangerous and military leaders ought to make sure that it doesn't happen; unfortunately, it does. Take, for example, these claims made in the February 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) report: "The United States now possesses a capacity to counter the projected threats from North Korea and Iran for the foreseeable future." And: "The United States is currently protected against the threat of limited ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] attack, as a result of investments made over the past decade in a system based on ground-based midcourse defense."
Neither of these statements is remotely true. The current system cannot even reliably intercept a single missile that's launched at a known time and on a known trajectory. None of the various missile defense systems, sea- or land-based, have ever been tested in a realistic setting: For instance, a surprise attack with salvos of missiles with decoy warheads (and other countermeasures) and unknown trajectories. J. Michael Gilmore, the director of the Operational Test and Evaluation Office of the Secretary of Defense, recently testified that "it will take as many as five to seven years to collect" just the necessary data to determine whether the administration's planned missile defense architecture is even sensible. And if future tests do prove it to be an empirical failure will the administration really roll back missile defense? It's unlikely. The long-range plans appear to be unencumbered by any realistic testing requirements.